After an impressive opening week of the NCAA tournament, 16 teams remain trying to lay claim to the title of national champion. We’ve highlighted 16 players who are potential X-Factors for their respective teams in their upcoming matchups. These aren’t necessarily the best players on their teams (in some cases they are), but instead they represent that distinct edge that could propel their team to the promise land.
Jefferson’s superb athleticism has been on display all season long for head coach Sean Miller. The 6-7 Chester High School (PA) product uses his enormous 7 foot wingspan to play bigger on both ends of the court. Fellow freshman Aaron Gordon and Jefferson present huge matchup problems for any front court they will see moving forward. They could very well be the most skilled front court duo left in the field of 16. Jefferson has thrived in both Zona tournament wins thus far, notching a combined 31 points (83% from the field), including 13 trips to the charity stripe.
The Bears look like a completely different team since head coach Scott Drew switched defensive principles from man to zone. You could argue that they were the most impressive team during the opening week of tournament play with wins over Nebraska and Creighton by a combined 44 points. At the center of the Bears attack is sophomore Isaiah Austin. The 7-1 big man has a unique skill set that allows him to pass, dribble, and shoot with relative ease in the Bears’ offense. His shot blocking ability is a huge bonus as well, as he averages over three blocks per game on the season.
Daniels is likely going to draw an assignment on the Cyclones Melvin Ejim come Friday, so his importance becomes even more magnified. Simply put, the Huskies need Daniels production on the floor and can ill-afford to be without him for long stretches of the game. The 6-9 forward has totaled 29 points in two tournament wins, but was in foul trouble during the team’s opening round win versus St. Joseph’s. Ejim is a very talented player that will challenge Daniels at every opportunity, so he’ll need to play within the boundaries of the team. A double digit output will be needed from Daniels should UCONN expect to advance past the Cyclones.
The Flyers magical run has been ignited in large part to the efforts of Oliver. In their upset victory over Syracuse on Saturday, Oliver found other ways to impact the game besides scoring. He notched 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals versus the Orange; a contagious performance that really seemed to rub off on his teammates. Oliver is another one of those remaining wing players that possesses extreme length and athleticism. He’ll likely matchup versus Huestis and Powell of the Cardinal.
Throw out the stats when talking about Patric Young. His leadership on the court is what energizes the Gators tenacious defensive attack. Although his offensive game hasn’t improved much since his sophomore season, he is still capable of picking up easy baskets in close due to his “never stop” work ethic. Regardless of how the Gators’ season ends (championship or not), the kid has already cemented his legacy in Florida. That legacy currently boasts 118 wins and counting. Bottom line, Patric Young is a winner.
Aaron and Andrew have combined for 64 points in the Wildcats victories versus Kansas State and Wichita State. The two heralded recruits out of Travis High School (Texas) are playing their best basketball of the season. The duos highlights from their win versus top seeded Wichita State speaks for itself:
There are certainly more talented players on the Cardinals roster, but the sharp shooting Hancock has proven to be a game changer. His ability to stretch defenses with his outside shooting puts extreme pressure on opposing defenses. The 6-6 senior out of Virginia connected on 65 three point shots on the season (9th-AAC). His two late three pointers in the Manhattan game helped Louisville hold off a potential opening round loss. You simply can’t underestimate the “clutch factor” this time of year, and Hancock continues to thrive in that role. Kentucky would be wise to find Hancock on the perimeter come Friday night.
The senior Morgan is the unquestioned leader on a once again surging Wolverines team. A lot of the team’s motion offense runs through Morgan with high screen picks. With so much attention usually being paid to the outside shooting of his fellow teammates, Morgan is usually good for a couple easy buckets during the game. On the defensive end of the floor, he usually matches up with the opposing team’s most talented big man. In their two wins versus Wofford and Texas, Morgan has produced 25 points and 20 rebounds. He’ll likely draw a matchup with the Volunteers Jarnell Stokes on Friday.
Like many of his teammates, Appling has battled injuries for most of the season. Unlike most of his teammates, Appling seems to struggle the most with the mental aspects of the game. He has always possessed star like qualities (former McDonald’s All-American), but for whatever reason, has never transitioned into the type of player many thought he would. In the tournament thus far, he has struggled mightily, picking up more fouls (7) than points scored (6). Every four year player has made the Final Four during the Tom Izzo era. Appling will need to find some confidence rather quickly if he expects to join that list.
Following the loss of Georges Niang in their opening round win versus North Carolina Central, DeAndre Kane became the most important player in the entire tournament. I’m not sure if there is another player left in the Field of 16 that has the ability to take a game over quite like Kane does. That game changing ability was on full display during their come from behind victory over North Carolina, a victory that saw Kane fill the stat sheet with 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists. Oh yeah, he also hit the game winner with 1.6 seconds left. The matchup with Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier will be one for the ages come Friday.
Kane’s game winner against UNC and Coach Hoiberg’s post game dance
Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell might fuel the Cardinal frontcourt attack, but Nastic could be the most important player in terms of the team’s success. The junior center possesses a surprisingly polished low post game, which enables him to get into the paint area with relative ease. The biggest concern for head coach Johnny Dawkins is keeping the big man out of foul trouble, as he fouled out of 8 contests during the regular season. The Serbian product has produced in wins over New Mexico and Kansas, scoring a total of 20 points to go along with 9 rebounds.
If Brust seems like he’s been playing at Wisconsin forever, it’s probably because he has. He has now appeared in 119 games for head coach Bo Ryan, and few players in the country can match his grit and tenacity on the court. His 2.1 assist to turnover ratio was 11th best in the Big 10, and his 90.1 free throw percentage ranks in the Top 10 nationally. Aside from his long range shooting, Brust might be one of the best rebounding guards in the country (especially considering his size). Only Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky had more total rebounds than Brust’s 159.
I’m not sure there was a more versatile player in the nation than the 6-9 Anderson. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Bruins’ player impact chart below:
The real question becomes, which Florida Gator draws the assignment on the ultra talented Anderson?
Great guard play can carry you a long way in the tournament, and Thames certainly qualifies as a great guard. The senior notched career highs in points per game (17.3) FG% (41.1), 3FG% (38.2), FT% (82.8), and steals (1.7) in 2013-14. Head coach Steve Fisher has gone on record by saying that Thames is also the Aztecs best help defender. He has the ability to recover quickly on defense, which usually makes the Aztecs already stellar defense that more stellar. He enters Thursday’s matchup with Arizona averaging a cool 26.5 points and 5 assists in wins over New Mexico State and North Dakota State.
Gill might be the most productive player in terms of minutes/floor time in the nation. Sunday’s win versus Memphis is a perfect example. In that game, Gill logged only 19 minutes but was able to produce 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks. The redshirt sophomore is a very physical player with the ability to crash the boards and create additional opportunities in the Cavaliers offense. In his last three games, Gill has earned 29 trips to the charity stripe. With a physical matchup versus Michigan State on the horizon, Gill could be the most pivotal player on Friday evening (for either team).
Richardson will be important for a variety of reasons on Friday. First, the 6-6 junior guard has really elevated his offensive game during the tournament. After averaging around 10 points per game on the season, Richardson has averaged over 19 points per game in tournament wins over Iowa, UMASS, and Mercer. They will certainly need his offensive production versus a Michigan team that can light up the scoreboard. Last (but perhaps most important), Richardson is the Vols best on-ball defender and will likely matchup with Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas.
Thanks to statsheet.com for their chart contribution
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